Seventy-five Years of Eucharistic Devotions

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All of us will agree that the seventy-five years of Holy Cross Province coincide with one of the most changing periods of human history. The automobile, the airplane, space exploration, radio, television, computers, medical surgery, refrigeration, central heating, air conditioning, etc., etc., all have changed the forms and patterns of daily life. In this present paper I would like to recall the changes and developments in eucharistic practice as experienced in Holy Cross Province. For seventy-five years Passionists have tried to express through varying forms their eucharistic piety.

Our Province began shortly. after Pope Pius X issued his decrees on Sacred Music (1903) and frequent Communion (December 20, 1905). Four years later (1910) he allowed for early Communion. These decrees changed the forms and practices of eucharistic piety. How did the Passionists respond?

From the very beginning of the Congregation our Constitutions legislated the frequency for the reception of Holy Communion. The Brothers could receive Communion on each Friday, on all non-consecutive Feasts and three times a week during Advent and Lent. The clerics were allowed to receive Communion three times a week and on non-consecutive Feasts.

Even after Pius X issued his decree allowing for daily Communion some felt that he did not mean to change our practice. I remember hearing Brother Wendelin Loeb telling how in the early days in Kansas the Rector would not permit him to receive Communion daily. But Brother Wendelin added that one of the younger priests advised him that he was free to receive Holy Communion and so he would serve this young priest at a side altar and receive Holy Communion without the Rector knowing it.

I do not know how common such responses were. However, when our Constitutions were revised in 1930 to conform to the new Code of Canon Law, the old restrictions on the reception of Holy Communion were retained in the text, but a statement was added that all were now free to receive more frequently and even daily. The restrictions, it was stated, were “directive” only. This ambiguity remained in the text until 1959.

I mention this here to remind ourselves that changes are hard to accept and to implement, even when allowed by the highest authority. What I find even more interesting and important is the fact that for almost two centuries daily Holy Communion was not a necessary part of the spiritual life of a large segment of Passionist religious, namely the Brothers and the clerics. Evidently, even St. Gabriel did not receive Holy Communion every day.

By the time I joined the Congregation (in the early 1930’s) daily Communion was the accepted and expected thing. That was the time also when the Liturgical Movement was beginning to surface in the Church of the United States. The Liturgical Movement stressed Gregorian chant, congregational singing, the use of the Daily Missal, dialogue Mass, etc. How did the Passionists respond to this Movement?

The revival of Gregorian chant was one of the features of the Liturgical Movement. In the late 20’s and 30’s Father Claude Nevin was promoting Gregorian chant at the Prep School in Normandy. He was truly one of the pioneers of the renewal of liturgical singing. I found a remark in the visitation book of our Louisville monastery written by Father Boniface Fielding, Provincial. He wrote rather strongly against the “operatic” singing at St. Agnes at that time and in favor of Gregorian chant. He mentioned that he would be looking into this situation. It would seem that he was not able to effect a change! However, in 1938 he did introduce the Promptuarium throughout the Province as the official chant-book for our liturgical celebrations. By the 1940’s and ’50’s Passionists in Holy Cross Province were using Gregorian chant and other approved forms of liturgical music.

If the Chant gradually gained acceptance among us, the practice of the dialogue Mass did not fare as well. The problem seemed to have been in regard to the interpretation of the Rule. The Rule did speak of an hour of mental prayer each morning during which one could celebrate and assist at Mass. We knelt silently and in the dark during the celebration of Mass. We did not use even the Daily Missal nor did we make the Latin responses. This remained our practice almost to the very beginning of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

During the time of the Second World War there was a strong emphasis throughout the United States on the efficacy of the sacrifice of the Mass as a petition both for peace and for the benefit of those killed in the war. Many of the faithful were seeking memorial Masses for their sons and husbands and daughters lost in the war. Requests came from all over for the singing of High Masses, especially for the deceased. We Passionists were requested to celebrate such High Masses in nearby parish churches. Within our own monasteries the singing of High Masses in the chapel or the choir or even in small oratories became somewhat common. This was also a time when many priests celebrated “Black Masses,” that is Requiem Masses, for the deceased day after day as often as the rubrics allowed. Only a few felt some discomfort with these practices. The majority of the religious felt that our helping with these daily High Masses was part of our response to the wishes and requests of the faithful.

During the seventy-five years of our history another form of devotion to the Eucharist was emphasized, namely the devotion to the Real presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. We had the Blessed Sacrament in all of our public churches and chapels and also in the community choir. All of our spiritual exercises took place before the Blessed Sacrament. We were explicitly forbidden to make our morning or evening prayer in our private rooms. Twice a day after dinner and supper the entire community made a very special “visit” to the Blessed Sacrament before the recreation periods. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was celebrated on Sunday afternoons and on First Class Feast Days. Once a week, during the evening meditation, the Holy Hour was kept in a quiet, simple way in the choir. It is interesting to note that in more recent years there are several varying aspects of this devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. In some of our houses it remains as in the past. At other times there has been an effort to have the Blessed Sacrament in small oratories for private prayer, for example in Louisville a few years ago, and in Cincinnati shortly before the house was closed. On the other hand, in some of our recently established small communities, the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved.

In the early days the religious assisted at Mass in the religious habit. The mantle was worn for the reception of Holy Communion by the Brothers and clerics. Surpluses were used by the Brothers and clerics to serve Mass only on special Feast Days or when they were serving the Mass of a special superior. The priests all wore the usual vestments of the time. For many years the chasuble was the so-called “fiddle-back” because its cut resembled a fiddle. Sometimes these vestments, which were called “Roman”, were quite ornate and heavy. Later we began using “Gothic” or “Medieval” vestments which were more ample and free flowing. Brother Anthony Blankemeyer made beautiful “Gothic” vestments for use at the Preparatory Seminary in Normandy. Since the time of Vatican II the vestments have sometimes been more simplified and sometimes even more ornate than before Sometimes the circumstances of the Liturgy lead the celebrant to use quite simple vestments. Some would suggest that concelebrants should simply wear the Passionist habit with a stole.

By the mid-1950’s Pius XII had introduced several reforms. He changed the laws of the Eucharistic fast, he allowed evening Masses and he reformed the Holy Week services. These initiatives on the part of Pius XII prepared the way for the Second Vatican Council and the later instructions of the Sacred Congregation. Congregational participation in the Eucharist, the use of the vernacular, concelebration, Communion under both species, all these are now taken for granted. How have the religious of Holy Cross Province responded to these changes?

The implementation of the liturgical instructions received the full support of the 1964 General Chapter. Provincial authority in our Province initiated the reforms as soon as possible. A team of three religious was sent out to all of the communities to give further instruction to the religious. There was also, of course, on the part of some, the eagerness to anticipate and to innovate. On the other hand, there were others who expressed caution and even reluctance to up-date. The Provincial Chapter of 1968 and the General Chapter of 1968-1970 promoted the liturgical renewal throughout the Congregation and within our Province.

These are some reminiscences of the past seventy-five years of Eucharistic practice and piety of Holy Cross Province. The variety of the external forms of Eucharistic worship are quite interesting in themselves. Perhaps what is more important is the particular facet of the Eucharistic Mystery emphasized by one or other practice. For example, in the early years of the Province as the religious sought to fulfill the decrees of Pius X, there was a strong emphasis on spiritual nourishment and grace coming through and from Holy Communion. The insistence on quiet meditation upon the sufferings of the Lord during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass emphasized the Eucharist as the “memorial of the Passion.” Active participation through singing and ceremonies pointed out that the Eucharist is a communal celebration in which all have a part. Celebrating the Eucharist in small groups around a more table-like altar helped us to see the Eucharist as the “Supper of the Lord.”

The seventy-five years of our Eucharistic practice and piety remind us that we cannot grasp the entirety of this Mystery at one given moment. Each decade of these seventy-five years emphasizes one or another of the facets of the Eucharistic Mystery. We should not expect any one decade to stress every aspect of the Eucharistic Mystery in the same way. Certainly, “at sundry times and in diverse manners” the Passionists of Holy Cross Province have given expression to the greatness of the Eucharistic Mystery.

Very Rev. Roger Mercurio, C. P.
Provincial Superior
March 24, 1981

Please contact Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P. at [email protected] if you have any comments. Permission of Archives needed for publication.